"What Is a Predicate in Grammar?": Oregon State Guide to Grammar

View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to Grammar

What is a Predicate? - Transcript

Written and Performed by J.T. Bushnell, Oregon State University Senior Instructor of English

Being able to identify subjects and predicates will help you with many of the mechanical errors people often struggle with, like comma splices, sentence fragments, and agreement. Really, these are all just ways of asking writers to stay true to the subject-predicate relationship.

As I mentioned in the last video, the subject is usually a noun, but not always. The predicate, however, always contains a verb, one that goes with the subject. That’s the basis of the relationship. Sometimes the verb stands alone, and in that case, it is, by itself, the entire predicate. In “The man laughs,” the predicate is “laughs.” That’s the verb that goes with the subject. Other times, there’s more than one verb that goes with the subject. “The man laughs, squints, snorts, and shrieks.” The predicate is all of them. There’s also usually other stuff that goes with the verb or verbs, extra information about when, where, or in what manner it occurs. “The women laughed uncontrollably for several minutes on the playground slide.” The predicate is the verb and all that other stuff. It’s basically everything except the subject.

But the verb is so important in the construction that it has a special name, the predicating verb. It’s the key to the predicate, the element that completes the relationship with the subject. We can see that relationship by the way the subject controls the form of the predicating verb: two women laugh, one woman laughs. So a fair definition for a predicate might be the tensed verb that defines or comments on the subject – and everything that goes with the verb. (Or verbs.)

That inclusiveness can make it pretty easy to identify the predicate because we don’t really have to distinguish its pieces from one another. Let’s take our example with multiple predicating verbs: “The man laughs, squints, snorts, and shrieks.” And let’s modify it a little: “The man laughs, squinting, snorting, and shrieking.” The meaning is basically the same, and all the words are still part of the predicate. But those last three verbs, “squinting,” “snorting,” and “shrieking,” are no longer predicating verbs. We can tell because the subject doesn’t control their form: “He laughs, squinting, snorting, and shrieking” – “They laugh, squinting, snorting, and shrieking.” Only the tensed verb changes. The others stay the same. Because of that, we could shift them to a different position in the sentence if we like: “Squinting, snorting, and shrieking, the man laughs.” They’re still part of the predicate, even when they occur before the subject, but they behave differently from predicating verbs.

So although we can lump these elements together, it’s useful to recognize the difference between the essential predicating verb or verbs and the extra stuff. That difference can help you make sense of other grammatical constructions like clauses and phrases, which we’ll talk about in future videos, as well as the mechanical issues that most people think of when they say the word “grammar.”

View the full series:

The Oregon State Guide to Grammar